In the first installment of my fanciful retelling of the last 2 years with me as the Twins' GM, I coasted into October with this team:
1. Denard Span, CF
2. Jason Bartlett, SS
3. Joe Mauer, C
4. Justin Morneau, 1B
5. Matt Kemp, LF
6. Jason Kubel, DH
7. Michael Cuddyer, RF
8. Andy LaRoche, 3B
9. Alexi Casilla, 2B
Mike Redmond, C; Kenny Lofton, OF; Nick Punto, Brian Buscher, IF; Randy Ruiz, PH
1. Johan Santana
2. Scott Baker
3. Francisco Liriano
4. Nick Blackburn
Joe Nathan, CL; Jose Mijares, Dennys Reyes, Craig Breslow, LHP; Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Boof Bonser, RHP
with Kevin Slowey joining the rotation if we got past the Divisional round. Hopefully, the rotation anchored by Santana was enough to get us deep into the playoffs, but just getting there was certainly worth keeping him.
Looking forward to 2009, we are incredibly well-positioned. We're able to return our entire starting lineup and 4/5 of the rotation. Santana, Lofton, Punto and Reyes are the only free agents. Only Kubel and Guerrier are eligible for arbitration. Obviously, it's a step down from Santana to Liriano. But Baker and Liriano appear to be a pretty competent #1-#2 combination, and Slowey, Blackburn and Perkins look like they can fill out the rotation strongly. With the exception of Guerrier, the bullpen found its footing down the stretch, and Guerrier can be expected to have way better numbers in 2009.
Heading into the offseason, we have payroll totally under control, so there's room to spend in free agency. We don't really need any pitching, maybe just some NRIs who can provide some depth/competition in spring training. Though we'd like LaRoche to seize the everyday 3B job, platooning him at least 1/2 time with Buscher looks as though it will be better than anything available on the market. Revising my real-world offseason priorities from last year to reflect the changes I've already made, my objectives would be:
1. Re-sign Reyes
This turns out to be relatively easy. The market for veterans gets worse and worse as the weeks go by. Reyes hopes for better than the 2-year, $7M contract I offer him in late November (based on Jeremy Affeldt's deal with SF), but by the time he's ready to come back to us, the price has dropped by almost half. He finally comes back to us for 2 years, $3.6M ($1.75M in '09 and '10, with a $2 M option for '11 or $100K buyout).
2. Improve the lineup
This is trickier. Mauer, Morneau, Kubel, Bartlett and Cuddyer are all veterans in or about to enter their peak years. I believe that a healthy Cuddyer will return to something close to his 2006 production, so I don't sweat RF. Kubel has been getting stronger every year, though I'll still provide someone to caddy for him vs. LHP.
Span, Kemp, LaRoche and Casilla are all highly regarded young players with less than 2 years of big league experience. I expect each of them to make adjustments in 2009 that will improve upon their 2008 performances and bring them closer to their ceilings. LaRoche will still have a lefty to split time with should he struggle. Casilla should have a veteran backup as well.
Looking around at possible trades and free agents, it's difficult to find a situation in which the price of the player (dollars, draft pick, talent to be traded) is worth the amount of upgrade he'd provide to the lineup. That's until I notice that Orlando Hudson is still hanging around unsigned in February. He's a proven major league switch hitter with a career OBP around .350. He plays excellent defense at 2B. He's not the base-stealer Casilla is, but he has about twice the pop. I wouldn't have given him a $30M+ contract like we all expected him to get at the beginning of the offseason. But it's a bad economy, and a strange market. Even though I have to give up our first round draft pick to sign him, it's OK - we got a higher pick when the Mets signed Santana anyway. I sign Hudson to a 2-year, $10.5M deal ($5M in '09 and '10, $6M in '11 or a $500K buyout). Casilla still has options - we'll plan on him playing every day at Rochester. If everything goes well, we'll have someone to trade later...
3. Improve the bench
This boils down to getting the most options we can. I'm very high on Jose Morales, and I love that he could be a switch PH as well as a backup C. But I still pick up Redmond's option. I keep Ruiz on the roster and bring him back to camp. I re-sign Nick Punto in early December to be a super-utility player for the deal he's got now. I expect Buscher to improve as he continues to adjust to big league pitching. Matt Tolbert is about as versatile as Punto, and continues to be a good bench option.
It's time for Lofton to hang it up, though. Between Kemp and Span we've got CF covered, and Cuddyer and Kubel can play the corners in addition to those two. I'd like to have another corner person in camp, though, preferably a veteran SH who plays average or better defense and also has high OBP and some pop for PH situations. We finished 2008 with such a guy in Rochester: Bobby Kielty. He doesn't hit RHP very well anymore, but generally fits the bill. I give him an NRI.
4. Acquire a true #1 starter
I try to make this happen in order to take us to the next level - Baker, Liriano, Slowey, Blackburn and Perkins is good, but Ace, Baker, Liriano, Slowey and Blackburn/Perkins is even better. Also, we've got money to spend, and we're used to having one of the best pitchers in the league. However, I don't really want to commit $80M or more to pitchers in their 30s - we're still a small market and we can't get stuck with lousy contracts. So I make inquiries into Jake Peavy, who is one of the best pitchers in baseball and is under contract for $63M through 2012 with an option for 2013.
I offer Blackburn, Casilla, Anthony Swarzak, Bobby Korecky and Danny Valencia. They insist on having either Ben Revere or Aaron Hicks headline the package. I'm feeling pretty good about Kemp, but I'm not so positive that Span is the real deal (he's only had 1.5 good seasons, after all) that I'm willing to part with Revere just yet, and including Hicks makes it too big a price to pay for the improvement that Peavy is going to provide over a developing Glen Perkins. So it doesn't get done.
5. Lock up the core players
But that leaves plenty of money to sign our peaking players to long-term deals. Once again, the market is in our favor, as Kubel signs his 2-year, $7.2M contract (w/ $5.25M option for 2011) and Scott Baker signs for $15.25M over 4 years with a $9.25M option for 2013. Those are great contracts, but they're not the main objective.
We've got to sign Mauer now so we don't wind up in the Santana situation all over again next year. And Mauer's pre-season injury status makes him all the more willing to accept some guaranteed money. Since he's been comparably valued to Morneau in terms of awards and All-Star appearances, and they're buddies, and Mauer's a nice guy, we can offer him a similar deal to Morneau's. So he signs a 4-year, $63M extension ($14M in 2011-2014, + $16M option for 2015 or $2M buyout) including a $5M signing bonus and all the same incentives as in Morneau's deal. This makes him the highest-paid C in MLB history by almost 10%. He is about to become a perennial All-Star, Gold Glover, Silver Slugger and top-5 MVP finisher - those will add a couple 100K to his annual earnings. He's now got 6 years of guaranteed 8-figure income, though it will be many weeks before he's healthy enough to step on the field. We've got the league's premiere C locked up through at least his age 31 season.
We get bad news when Pat Neshek is lost for the year with Tommy John surgery. But the bullpen we finished with still provides 7 quality guys for the bullpen. When Boof Bonser is lost early in spring training as well, we're forced to bring in someone else to provide middle relief innings. Luis Ayala is about all that's left - we sign him for $1.3M and bring him into camp.
We're certainly apprehensive about Mauer's sustained back trouble. Morales doesn't have a great spring, but his track record with the bat gets him the call to start the season. Gardy insists that the young rotation needs a 7-man bullpen to cover it. Mijares shows up for camp shamefully out of shape and gets lit up - we can't take him north, and a spot opens in the 'pen. To everyone's amazement, RA Dickey, signed to fill out the Rochester rotation, has a brilliant spring and earns it. Because of the shortened bench, versatility is a must, so Bobby Kielty wins the final bench spot and we trade Randy Ruiz to Toronto for Darin Mastroianni, a RH speedster to compliment Revere at Fort Myers.
Scott Baker gives up an alarming number of HR, then goes on the DL the last week of the spring. Brian Duensing joins the team to briefly take this spot. Anthony Slama and Rob Delaney both begin the season at Rochester. This is our opening day roster:
1. Span, LF
2. Hudson, 2B
3. Kemp, CF
4. Morneau, 1B
5. Cuddyer, RF
6. Kubel, DH
7. LaRoche, 3B
8. Redmond, C
9. Bartlett, SS
Punto, Busher, IF; Morales, C; Kielty, OF
Nathan, CL; Guerrier, Crain, Ayala, RHP; Reyes, Breslow, Duensing, LHP
Opening day payroll is about $71M, the 3rd straight season it's come in right around there. We had budgeted for the payroll to reach up to $85M, so there's room to add salaries over the course of the season if necessary...
Things get off to an exceptionally rocky start as better than half of the pitching staff really struggles in April. Baker and Liriano each lose their first 4 decisions, generally being bludgeoned in the process. Slowey is only winning thanks to a ton of run support. Crain, Breslow, Ayala and Dickey all struggle with control, yielding huge numbers of baserunners. When Baker comes off the DL, Duensing returns to Rochester. When Crain gets hurt, we bring up Mijares. The offense helps us slug our way to a couple of wins, and we complete a Mauer-less month with .500 record.
Mauer returns on May 1st (Dickey is sent down) to key an offensive explosion - virtually the entire lineup is hot as we finish 2nd in the league in scoring for the month. But it's barely enough to keep the team above water. Though Baker starts to find it, Liriano and Perkins appear to be losing it. Crain returns from the DL (Morales is sent down), but has the worst 6-week stretch of his career. Breslow continues to struggle, but I am adamant that he is a good pitcher, that this period is unprecedented in his career, and that he'll work his way out of it. By Memorial Day, he does. At least Reyes can be relied upon to bail us out of jams vs. LH batters. Perkins hits the DL after the Yankees series; we call up Anthony Swarzak, who gives us five pretty good starts to begin his career. May is also a .500 month.
The offense cools off a bit in June, but the pitching is starting to come together. Perkins is solid in his first few outings back from the DL. Span hits the DL for a stretch (we replace him with Dustin Martin), but the other OF cover for him just fine. Baker, Slowey and Blackburn are all reliably pitching deep into games. Crain is optioned to Rochester and Dickey (who has been lights out this whole time) is recalled. Ayala pisses Gardy off and is released; we fill that roster spot with Bobby Keppel. We lose a couple of tough ones in which things get away from Blackburn in the bottom of the 8th, but it's otherwise a good month at 17-10.
We draft all the same people as in the real world, using the 1st-round and compensation picks we got from the Mets to draft Kyle Gibson and Matt Bashore.
July gets off to a sour start as Slowey is placed on the DL, necessitating a recall of Swarzak, who is much less successful in his second stint. We lose 3 in a row to the Yankees, as usual. LaRoche has fallen off after a torrid May, though he continues to draw walks, mash LHP and play plus defense at 3B. The same cannot be said for Buscher (except for the BB), as he has shown neither power nor range throughout the season. The remainder of the lineup has been outstanding. We hit the All-Star break tied with Detroit at 9 games over .500.
We open the 2nd half on a 10-game west coast road trip that is nearly disastrous as our pitchers are repeatedly annihilated. We even came close to losing a game we were leading by 12 runs! Jesse Crain returns from his demotion (Dickey is sent down) and soon shows that he is back to his old self. It becomes clear that Slowey will be lost for the season; we need to replace him for the last 2 months of the year. I feel like the guy trying to stick his finger in the dam: every time I plug one hole in the pitching staff, a new one opens up. Liriano and Perkins are pitching better, but now Blackburn is struggling. Our poor performance vs. the likely playoff teams also has me worried about how far we can get with the pitching staff as constituted.
I'm now confident enough in Span that I'm willing to put Revere on the trade block, especially since Mastroianni has essentially matched Revere's production and earned a mid-season promotion to AA. Furthermore, with Mauer playing nearly every day and being incredibly awesome (and reasonably under contract for the next 5 years), and Morales performing splendidly in all his AB so far, I'm feeling like Wilson Ramos is expendable, too. And though LaRoche hasn't yet reached his potential, he's shown improvement over last year, and at the moment is no worse than an average all-around 3B - Danny Valencia doesn't project to be much more than that.
I'm ready to offer the blockbuster trade package I wouldn't give in the offseason. Toronto is actively shopping Roy Halladay. I get him for a package of Revere, Ramos, Valencia and Swarzak, our #2-#5 prospects according to Baseball America (now that Mijares is in the Majors). This compares quite closely with the deal Philadelphia gave Cleveland for Cliff Lee, who is also under contract for 2010. Toronto saves about $20M and has a CF, C, 3B and mid-rotation starter to rebuild around, all of whom should be on the roster by no later than opening day 2012. Our rotation now has Halladay at the front end.
Perkins returns to the DL after his start on August 2nd. All of a sudden, we need to trade for another guy. We grab Carl Pavano from Cleveland in exchange for Johan Pino. Pavano basically mimics Slowey's pitching performance, so he's a good fit. Liriano goes down 2 weeks later; we recall Duensing to replace him. Blackburn struggles the remainder of August, but Duensing solidifies Liriano's spot, and Halladay beats the hell out of Swarzak. I still want to do better in the bullpen than I can with Keppel, and neither Korecky, Slama or Delaney has had a strong enough year at Rochester to assure me that they can be the answer for the postseason (though they all get a September call-up). So I trade Jeff Manship to the D-Backs at the deadline for Jon Rauch. The Twins finish August 16-12, 4.5 games ahead of the Tigers.
A shocking 9th-inning loss to the White Sox on September 2nd sends us into a bit of a tailspin, during which time the Tigers get hot. They catch us on September 6th, before going into a 5-game slide that puts them 1.5 games back a week later. At that point, we get our final setback of the season: Justin Morneau has a stress fracture in his back and needs to sit out the remainder of the year. Our ostensible replacement, Justin Huber, quickly injures himself and is also out. So Cuddyer moves to the IF and turns into Albert Pujols-light for 3 weeks. Kubel and Kielty form a platoon in RF, with Jose Morales as the everyday DH, unless Mauer needs a breather from catching, in which case they switch - Redmond is basically done playing. LaRoche heats up and has his best month as a pro.
Finally, everything goes right. When we need good pitching in a tight game, we get it. When we need a ton of runs in a slugfest, we get them. Every member of the pitching staff is reliable over this stretch, and the lineup is clicking. We clinch the division by beating Detroit in the first game of a double-header on September 29th, and finish the season 92-70. Our playoff roster looks like this:
1. Span, LF
2. Hudson, 2B
3. Mauer, C
4. Cuddyer, 1B
5. Kubel, RF
6. Kemp, CF
7. Morales, DH
8. LaRoche, 3B
9. Bartlett, SS
Redmond, C; Punto, Buscher, IF, Kielty, OF
Nathan, CL; Rauch, Guerrier, Crain, RHP; Reyes, Breslow, Mijares, Duensing, LHP
Would that team have been able to defeat the Yankees? I don't know - nobody else was. Could we have won a game or 2 at least? You'd like to think so.
Also, in September, we use the remaining payroll surplus to sign international prospects Miguel Jean and Max Kepler, among others, adding some high-ceiling talent to the bottom of the system.
Next time: We catch up to the present day...